When you hear the term ‘pan sauce,’ what do you think of? You do think of something, right? Hell, gravy is a pan sauce, albeit on the heavier end of things – Something lighter than that but still plenty potent is the epitome of this genre, and a must have for your cooking arsenal – They’re easy, fast, and they elevate your cooking game appreciably – I’d argue that employing these well is a trait that separates good cooks from OK ones.
Pan sauces are created from the liquid and the little nasty bits generated by searing or roasting meat or fowl, and that’s why such a simple thing tastes so wonderful. These sauces are traditionally put back on the stuff they’re made from, but if you don’t try them on potatoes or veggies now and again, you’re missing a big treat. In fact, spectacular pan sauces can also be generated from roasting fish, potatoes, and vegetables, so never throw that stuff away.
Pan sauces lend themselves perfectly to meat and poultry for a couple of excellent reasons – First, they add a bit more moisture and pizazz to roasted proteins, and secondly, they can and should easily be prepared during the time those proteins are resting, subsequent to cooking and prior to carving.
In essence, these are emulsions, formed by combining two or more liquids that usually don’t stay together well – AKA fat and acid. Juices from what you’ve roasted, along with the fond, (that’s the hip chef name for the naughty bits left on the pan), provide the core fat component. An acid is added, most often in the form of wine. Then comes seasoning, a little more fat, and a little aromatic base. Everything gets whisked together, et viola. With minimal prep, a pan sauce can easily be put together in the time it takes your steaks or chops to rest.
As for what you should use, it’s really a ‘what have I got’ question. Fresh herbs of any kind pretty much always get the nod. Whatever red or white wine you’ve got on hand will do fine. Onion, shallot, and garlic are all good, as are capers and olives. Used sparingly, dried herbs and blends are fine – just keep in mind that they won’t have enough time to get much past their dried stated in a sauce made this quickly. Citrus makes a dandy minor note.
Get your mis en place together before you start the sauce – that’s key to keeping things simple and fast. On the flip side, don’t leave a pan sauce sitting for very long after it’s done – This is a temperature fused emulsion, and it will separate as it cools – so get it on the plate ASAP to avoid the uglies. You do warm your plates for service, right?
If you try a sauce from potatoes and/or veggies, keep in mind that there’s no fat, so add that accordingly – another couple tablespoons of oil and/or butter will do the trick.
Varying pieces of the puzzle will reward you with whole new flavor profiles – different wine and citrus, maybe a couple drops of Worcestershire or Maggi instead of fish sauce, different herbs or aromatics, mustard, horseradish, sweet minor notes from honey or agave – the sky is the limit, and again, the best way to experiment with this is to search your fridge and pantry and use what needs to be used.
Here’s my fave general purpose sauce to get you started. Branch out from there, and make ‘em yours.
Urban’s Go To Pan Sauce
The good stuff left over in the roasting pan
1/2 Cup White Wine (I use whatever is there and open)
2 Tablespoons minced Shallot
1/4 small fresh Lemon
3 Tablespoons Ghi (Unsalted butter is fine)
Spring or two fresh Herbs, (Thyme, Oregano, Sage leaves, Rosemary are all great – a light hand of dry is OK if that’s all you’ve got)
3-4 drops good quality Fish Sauce, (Red Boat is my go to)
Pinch of kosher salt
3-4 twists fresh ground pepper.
Pull whatever you roasted from the oven and the pan and transfer to a platter to rest, somewhere warm and loosely covered with metal foil.
Carefully pour off most of the fat from the roasting pan, leaving a couple of tablespoons.
Place the roasting pan on a burner over medium heat, (it’s already hot, so it doesn’t need a bunch of help in that regard – And handle the hot pan carefully!)
Toss in the shower, and sauté until it becomes translucent, about one minute.
Add the wine, and using a fork to scrape up all available naughty bits, and get all of that stuff loose.
Cook until the raw alcohol smell dissipates, about 1-2 minutes.
Squeeze in the lemon juice and whisk to incorporate.
Add the ghi or butter a bit at a time, and whisk steadily to incorporate.
Add the fish sauce and herbs and continue to whisk.
Turn burner heat off, add salt and pepper and adjust as needed.
Slice your protein, sauce, devour, accept raving accolades from your diners.